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« How to get where you want to be | Main | If you could just do one thing... »

The Menu of Life

There’s a big myth about the modern age which is that we all have to work much harder than we ever did before. We hear about the frantic pace of the modern workplace, etc. etc. Frankly it’s a load of hooey — as any description of the working conditions of ordinary people more than seventy or so years ago will tell you. I still have the letters my grandmother wrote home to my great-grandmother in England, when she was out in Canada during the First World War. My grandparents were farming out on the Alberta plains on land recently opened up by the Canadian Pacific Railway. With four small children in a wood cabin in the middle of the prairie, she just worked solidly from the time she got up in the morning (about 4 or 5) till the time she went to bed at night (about 11 or 12) seven days a week with no holidays. And my grandfather did the same, out on the prairie in all weathers.

So where did this myth come from that we are all overworked these days as a result of the pace of modern life? Well, it’s certainly true that many of us spend our time rushing around constantly busy. But rush and busyness don’t necessarily equal productive work (or play).

One of the very real differences between life today and life in olden times is that we have far more choice. My grandparents had very little choice about how they spent their days. Everything they did was necessary if they were going to survive — there were no distractions like computer games or tv or the internet. They couldn’t just even get in a car and go off to the cinema. No car, no cinema. Life for them, and for most working people, was like the fixed menu in a restaurant. If you were lucky you might get one or two choices but for the most part you ate what you were given and got on with it.

These days life for most of us is like being presented with an enormous restaurant menu with hundreds of choices. Most of them sound mouthwatering and making up our minds is really difficult.

In a real restaurant when we are presented with a huge menu like this we know that, however much we dither, we have got to make up our minds what we are going to have. Usually we will choose a starter, a main course and a dessert.

However when we are presented with the menu of life, instead of selecting a starter, a main course and dessert from all the hundreds of choices, we behave as if we had to eat the whole menu!

So it’s not surprising that we end up rushed off our feet. We commit ourselves to so many things that there is no possibility that we can do all of them. Unlike my grandparents, who had to work incredibly long and hard hours, our rushing around is a self-inflicted injury.

The next time you find yourself complaining how busy you are, think about the restaurant menu and ask yourself how many courses you are trying to cram into your current meal. Are you trying to have five starters, ten main courses and six desserts? No wonder you are having difficulty cramming it all in!

So make a start on cutting your commitments back to a make a meal that you stand some chance of being able to digest. And remember — when you have finished one meal, you can always come back and have another!

Reader Comments (10)

Hmm actually nothing has changed. Even in your grandparents day the rich and wealthy had choices. The poor struggled to survive. Today across the world many many more people have the same struggle to survive often so a small proportion of wealthy westerners can have choice. The sweat shops of china and india full of child slave making cheap goods for us to "enjoy" are no diffrent from the child slaves of the ninteenth century in match factories and down the mines.
April 27, 2007 at 15:13 | Unregistered CommenterPaul Orrett
But in my grandparents' day there were far less rich and wealthy people in proportion, and even they were quite circumscribed in the professions which they could take up. Whatever their circumstances, your grandparents or great-grandparents almost certainly had much less choice about their lives than you have.

There are plenty of people from China and India who read this website. I can't answer for them, but I'm not sure they would agree that nothing has changed since their grandparents' time. Comments welcome!
April 27, 2007 at 15:45 | Registered CommenterMark Forster
Hi Mark
How small this world is! My father's family was part of a covered wagon caravan that went from South Dakota to Alberta Canada in 1911 or 1912. They felled their own trees to build their own cabin, and everybody in the settlement contributed man hours to build the church and the school and clear paths as dirt roads. My dad's mom always told my dad and his siblings that education was the best way out of poverty. From that cabin with no utilites or furniture he studied hard and became a surgeon. His sister became a university professor and his other sister became a secondary school teacher. They had to do the farming because their father was dead, and had to put in their hours in community time and had to study around that schedule under the light of whale blubber lamps..........but their hard work got them out of poverty and into careers of service.(community obligation was almost as important as family or church obligations.
Hmmmmmm.....I wonder if your family was in the same settlement as my Dad's family...
April 27, 2007 at 23:35 | Unregistered Commenterlearning as I go
I really like this idea of life choices as a menu. What you are saying is that the menu is far more extensive and varied these days than it was for our grandparents or even our parents, who only had the set menu, or a limited choice of the "3 courses for £10.99" variety. I would consider today's choice is more like the average chinese restaurant/takeaway menu, where often the number of dishes goes into treble figures - of course we can't eat them all, but many of us still try to eat too many, don't manage to eat some or any of them and end up feeling miserable. Puts a whole new dimension on to the phrase "biting off more than you can chew"!

Fundamentally, the trick must be to decide which dishes you really, really, *want* to eat. When it comes to life choices, what is the best way of doing that?
April 28, 2007 at 9:45 | Unregistered CommenterCarole
I agree with Mark's post. Perhaps the modern western world suffers from too much choice? Like the confusion you can feel of walking into a coffee house and having to read from a menu of 50 different types of coffee! With choice and freedom comes responsibility - now we have to be even clearer on what we really want to do and be so that we can navigate successfully. I recently totted up the number of projects I have going and it was about 16 or so. No wonder I am feeling stressed! I have recently made a committment to clear my backlog of projects and only have one current project that I really really want to do. Once I have completed that I will start another one. To clear my backlog is going to take a while but I am really looking forward to the time when I only have one current project. My stress is completely self-inflicted. I just haven't been able to say no until now! :-))
April 30, 2007 at 9:51 | Unregistered CommenterNicky Perryman
Excellent post and much to think about. Thanks for posting this! :-)

May 1, 2007 at 5:23 | Unregistered CommenterJennelle
This reminds me of a book I read recently, L'ozio creativo by Domenico De Masi, whose title could be translated as The creative idleness. Sorry, I am not sure if there is a translation to English; there might, as I read the translation to Portuguese.

De Masi describes the relation between us and our work/job, and how this evolved since the stone age throughout the industrial revolution until now, where many are "knowledge workers". It gives a new perspective to such things. Plus, he says we should all be working less! :)
May 2, 2007 at 23:23 | Unregistered CommenterNatalia
Excellent Post. That reminds me what I read in the famous book "Learned Optimism"of Martin Seligman.
Seligman discovered that during "the Great Depression" in the '30 people were actually less depressed than now. They haven't choices, like us. They just have to confront with reality every day. They were sad, but not depressed. Too much choice, I know it sounds odd, it's a source of depression.
May 4, 2007 at 10:28 | Unregistered CommenterMassimo from Italy
Very good point about choice. Another difference that jumps out at me from your post is that your grandparents had a lot of physical labour to get through, whereas growing numbers of us are now engaged in jobs requiring lots of mental work but without much physical exertion. So we end up feeling mentally 'busy' and physically sluggish, without necessarily getting much done.
May 7, 2007 at 17:03 | Unregistered CommenterMark McGuinness
I realise this is a really old post but I felt motivated to comment as it got me thinking. The menu analogy is great, as it also presents a way to restrict choice without *feeling* resticted - imagine you go to a top class Michelin-starred restaurant, but the menu is rather limited. Do you feel "restricted"? No! Because you know whatever you order will be delicious, top quality, carefully crafted food, cooked by some of the best chefs. You won't feel in any way deprived by having so little choice.

Applied to life, the lesson would probably be "pick your restaurant carefully"! Don't just go for the place with the 17 page menu in the hope that the "choice" will be better - chances are that the chefs there can barely remember how to cook each dish! Whereas if you go to somewhere with only a few choices, the chefs have had more chance to perfect those few dishes (even if we're not talking about Michelin starred places!).

Obviously, it's not quite as simple as this in reality, because in life we have to "construct our own restaurant", either by accident or design. Some people are lucky enough to stumble on a fabulous "restaurant" with little effort, but for most of us, if we want the best "restaurant" we have to design it. I suppose this boils down to really thinking about what our "perfect life menu" would be, and focusing on that, trying not to let other things creep in. That doesn't mean we can never "change the menu" - good restaurants don't stick to the same menu forever, but they don't just chop and change for the sake of it. When they make changes they will be carefully thought through, perfected until they are ready to be unveiled to their customers. Menus will change to reflect the seasons, new ideas the chef has had, and so on, but a popular dish won't suddenly be scrapped unless the chef feels stuck in a rut, and changes won't be rushed without careful planning.

Anyway, thanks for giving me this "food for thought" - I'm going to go and have a go at writing my "life menu"!
October 18, 2011 at 9:38 | Unregistered CommenterMrsHmmz

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